By Isis Davis-Marks for Artsy
Sometimes we look at figurative paintings in order to better understand ourselves. We visit museums and galleries to get a glimpse of portraits that appear to gaze back at us—we engage them in a silent back-and-forth, an unspoken negotiation. The Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–19) seems to tease us with a condescending smirk; in Las Meninas (1656), Infanta Margarita Teresa stares us down with an imperial glare; and the Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665) locks eyes with us as she slightly parts her lips. When we look up at these portraits, we can’t help but feel that these figures are exalted or majestic or one step away from godliness. But how are we ever supposed to see ourselves, to truly engage in that silent exchange, if the subjects of these paintings never resemble us?
Historically, it has been difficult for members of the African diaspora to see ourselves represented in such paintings. However, this is beginning to change as contemporary artists like
Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Henry Taylor, Jordan Casteel, and a number of others are at the forefront of the genre. The increased visibility for black figurative painters has led to a shift in the dialogue around painting and identity, and has given more black artists the opportunity to showcase their work in places where they had previously been excluded.
Importantly, there is a wide swathe of young and lesser-known black artists pursuing figurative painting today, ensuring the longevity and richness of this thriving tradition while also building upon it. Here, we feature 10 of these artists, each of whom offers a fresh, thoughtful approach to painting the human form.
Wangari Mathenge’s paintings often show people caught in a particular moment. Maybe they’re drinking a cup of coffee, like the woman in Coffee At Cassell’s (2019), or gazing wistfully at something beyond the frame, as in The Cacophony of Silence (2019). Some of her figures are based on herself or pictures of family members.
“I’ve heard comments about how empowering and inspiring it is for black people to see themselves reflected this way,” Mathenge said. “However, for me, painting is merely an expression of myself, a form of catharsis. Currently, it takes the form of figurative painting, but if it ever morphed into abstraction, it would still feel the same to me—something of me that I offer to the world unsolicited.”
Mathenge’s work, which featured in a solo show at Roberts Projects in fall 2019, is instantly recognizable because of the artist’s vivid color palette—which calls to mind the paintings of Alice Neel—and energetic swirls of paint. “I enjoy expressive brushwork,” Mathenge said. “It’s the one part of painting that is always a surprise, as it is often dictated by mood and energy.”